Woody Guthrie still inspires, 100 years on from his birth
The Observer, by Ed Vulliamy
In his centenary year, the songs of the father of protest live on in the music of Dylan and Springsteen. But his radical approach to life provides arguably an even greater legacy.
Woody Guthrie was, as his daughter Nora told me yesterday, "the last of the great European troubadours and first singer-songwriter punk rocker". He was born on 14 July – Bastille Day – 1912 and this week Britain and America are preparing for the centenary of the birth of the folk singer who is the founding father of protest music.
In his birthplace of Okemah, Oklahoma, there will be a free festival; his son, Arlo Guthrie, plays in New York’s Central Park next weekend, and Steve Earle will host Woodyfest in the same city. Earlier this year Bruce Springsteen, in a keynote address at the SXSW music industry festival in Texas, hailed Guthrie’s "fatalism tempered by practical idealism", and conviction that "speaking truth to power was not futile". Events in Ireland, Germany, Austria and the length and breadth of the US testify to the power of Guthrie’s legacy. There will be much poring over Bob Dylan’s recollection of buying his hero cigarettes to smoke in hospital in New York and singing his old songs back to him during long afternoons by his bedside as Guthrie wasted away with Huntington’s disease.
But it is at Hyde Park, London, next Saturday that the two artists who carry the mantle of Woody Guthrie’s message and music combine on the same bill: Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, whose joint account of The Ghost of Tom Joad – Springsteen’s homage to Woody’s homage to John Steinbeck’s hero – is among the most potent and electrifying performances ever.
"You throw a rock in water, and you watch the ripples," Nora Guthrie said. "I see these people singing these songs, and I’m not responsible for what happens. Each of them sees Woody through their own eyes; no one really knows who Woody was or is. I love it when I see people like Springsteen and Morello or John Fogerty together with those songs, because it all comes together in the big picture."
Guthrie, born into a family that was anything but leftist (and was even racist, according to many accounts), became the author of "hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people" – and America’s alternative national anthem, This Land Is Your Land. Only recently have Springsteen and Morello decided to play the full version, never included in songbooks, with verses assailing private property. Nora Guthrie believes that these were omitted to simplify the song for schools; Morello that "they censored out all the verses which indicate what a revolutionary, class-war anthem it is".
Woody at 100 remains politically compelling, and sometimes baffling. The restoration of This Land Is Your Land demonstrates the dichotomies of Woody Guthrie and the American patriotic left, which loves the land (the dream, even) but fights the system – only to be embraced by that system.
A new book Woody Guthrie, American Radical, by American literature professor Will Kaufman, seeks cogently to reclaim Guthrie from his appearance on US postage stamps and the national heritage, asserting his part in "the communist movement, if not the Communist party".
Kaufman likes the idea of rightwingers "licking Woody’s ass" on stamps, but his book went to press before This Land Is Your Land was turned into a "Google doodle" by the cyber-behemoth on last week’s Independence Day. Guthrie, Kaufman reminds us, was an admirer of Stalin, though his membership of the US Communist party is debated.
Nora Guthrie, who curates her father’s archive of letters, drawings, diaries and the rest, insists that he could never have existed "in the straitjacket of a party". She calls him "a commonist, not a communist", who "wanted to be involved in government to change things, not to overthrow it", and believed in government in a way that would infuriate the American right today.
Two centennial CD releases encapsulate the arguments: one out this week is a 3CD set from the Smithsonian Institution and the other is an extraordinary project in the pipeline at Rounder Records that will culminate in seven CDs and a book by the label’s founder, Bill Nowlin.
Rounder has for many years brought out-of-print Guthrie music back into the catalogue, winning Grammy awards for recordings made in a Brooklyn basement and the so-called US government recordings that Woody made for the war effort, electrification and other federal programmes. Almost unknown are sessions included in the set that Woody recorded to promote penicillin, and 10 songs urging the prevention of venereal disease.
Nowlin said: "Woody threw himself into these things – during the war he joined the merchant marine, and was torpedoed twice. He is said to have been never happier than when working on songs about government projects bringing electricity to parts of the country. He was never actually blacklisted as a communist, but he was sidelined, and it’s almost tragic to see how hard Woody tried to do more of the same."
Nora Guthrie, now married to a German broadcaster, sets all this in terms of her father "breaking the frames in which people put what they see and know. Some peoples’ frame is 6×10, others’ is 4×6! Woody just keeps breaking the frame. We file his songs by alphabetical order, and there’ll be a song about a miner next to a children’s song next to a song that’s almost pornographic! I always think of it as: ‘How wide can you stretch your arms?’ He loved it all, from A to Z, from the prostitutes to the priests." And the great thing is, she adds: "These songs are made of quirky lines full of huge ideas. You can go as deep as you want to go, or you can settle right there."
Twenty years ago Nora Guthrie entrusted a wealth of lyrics to which her father had not composed tunes to Billy Bragg. The English singer has since recorded many of these with US band Wilco as The Mermaid Avenue Sessions. Bragg says: "When you sing I Ain’t Got a Home in This World No More, with all these people foreclosed by the bank – it’s pretty strong. I see myself as part of a chain of those who’ve been influenced by Woody Guthrie. Dylan, then me and what I’m doing with Wilco to the Mermaid Avenue lyrics – connecting them to future generations. It’s like Tom Joad at the end of Grapes of Wrath – whenever I’m playing for Occupy, or people fighting the British National party, even if there’s only two people listening, that’s in the spirit of Woody Guthrie."
Then there’s Woody the man, father – grandfather, indeed. Supervising logistics at the archive in New York state, which will next year move to a permanent home in Oklahoma, is Guthrie’s granddaughter Anna Canoni, who describes her work as "Wow! That’s all day, every day, for me, finding out something new about my grandfather.
"It’s only since I had kids of my own that I realised Woody children’s songs my mom sang me are actually very manipulative – about getting you to have a bath and go to bed! Sometimes I find something and think: ‘Should someone really be reading this about their grandfather?’, but then even our grandparents are individuals, and that’s who Woody was."
It has become a cliche that Guthrie was a womaniser, but what does that mean? Ask his daughter: "If Woody did love a number of women, which he did, what’s interesting is why he loved them."
She cites a conversation with Morello "and he was saying how frustrated and angry he was – and there was Woody’s song Ease My Revolutionary Mind, which goes: ‘I need a progressive woman / I need an awfully liberal woman / Ain’t no reactionary baby / Can ease my revolutionary mind’. How often do you hear a man talk to you like that?
"There’s a song about him dating my mom, and it’s got them talking ‘Quiet idle words, of the church and the steeple / The union, the war, and the world full of people’. Talking about the union while making love! Woody didn’t love women because they have big Botox breasts and he didn’t call them ‘bitch’ – he loved women for all the reasons they want to be loved for."
And as a father? "OK, so he wasn’t the all-American father. But how many people have a father that wrote them 600 songs? He filled my head with big ideas. So he didn’t play baseball with us, but he gave me things to think about for the rest of my life. I may never work them out, but what a journey!"
LIFE AND TIMES
Full name Woodrow Wilson Guthrie.
Born 14 July 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma.
Early years After Okemah’s oil boom turned to bust, the 19-year-old Woody Guthrie left for Texas, where he married his first wife, Mary Jennings, in 1933. Forced to travel in search of work, he painted signs and played guitar in return for food and shelter.
High point As part of the Almanac Singers, Guthrie used his songwriting to further political activism in New York in the 1940s. Members of the Almanacs later reformed as the Weavers without him, but their huge success brought his songs a wider audience.
Later career Guthrie served in the merchant marine and army during the second world war, during which time he wrote songs warning soldiers about sexually transmitted diseases. After years of erratic behaviour, he was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative Huntington’s disease in 1954, after being picked up for vagrancy. He died in 1967, leaving a new generation of folk singers, including Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, whom he had inspired.